The hero of Hotel Rwanda, sentenced to 25 years in prison

Paul Rusesabagina, whose story inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda” and who became a fierce critic against the regime of President Paul Kagame, was sentenced this Monday to 25 years in prison for “terrorism”, after a trial described as ” political ”by his supporters.

The prosecution had demanded a sentence equivalent to life imprisonment, but Judge Beatrice Mukamurenzi pointed out that Rusesabagina’s sentence “should be reduced to 25 years”, as it was the first against him.

“The court concludes that Rusesabagina’s role in the creation of the FLN, providing funds to the rebels and buying media for the rebels constitute the crime of terrorism,” Mukamurenzi, one of the three magistrates of the court of Kigali.

“He founded a terrorist organization and contributed financially to terrorist activities,” he added.

After being detained in controversial conditions in Kigali in August 2020, this virulent opponent of Kagame was tried, along with 20 others, from February to July on nine charges, including terrorism.

Rusesabagina participated in the founding in 2017 of the Rwanda Movement for Diplomatic Change (MRCD), of which the FLN is considered the armed wing, but has always denied any involvement in these attacks.

“A show”

Neither the defendant, who may appeal, nor his lawyers were present when the verdict was read. They boycotted the hearings since March, denouncing a “political” process made possible by his kidnapping organized by the Rwandan authorities, as well as the humiliating treatment during his detention.

His family and supporters have always denounced this trial as “a spectacle put on by the Rwandan government to silence a critic and cool any future dissent.”

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Carine Kanimba, daughter of the defendant interrogated in Belgium by AFP, accused President Paul Kagame of having “decided” the sentence of her father, which “does not surprise her”, since he had kidnapped her father, and said before her television that had “blood stained hands.”

Belgium, where Rusesabagina has resided, has expressed concern about this process on several occasions.

After the sentence, the Belgian executive affirmed that the accused has not benefited from a “fair or equitable trial; particularly with regard to defense rights ”, in the words of the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sophie Wilmès.

The United States, which awarded Rusesabagina the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005, and the European Parliament have also raised concerns about the legitimacy of the trial.

In an interview in early September, the Rwandan president responded to the criticism by assuring that Rusesabagina “would be judged as fairly as possible.”

This process “has nothing to do with the film or its celebrity status,” but “it is about the lives of Rwandans lost by their actions and by the organizations to which they belonged or led,” Kagame stressed.

Rusesabgina, a fervent opponent of Kagame for 20 years, accuses the Rwandan president of being authoritarian and promoting anti-Hutu sentiment.

Since 1996, he has lived in exile in the United States and in Belgium, where he obtained the nationality of this European country, before being arrested in Kigali in 2020 when he was traveling to Burundi by plane.

The Rwandan government admitted to having “facilitated the trip” to Kigali, but claimed that the arrest was “legal” and that “their rights were never violated”.

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In the trial, which lasted five months, contradictory testimony about his role has been seen.

An FLN spokesperson stated that Rusesabgina “had not given orders to the fighters” of this rebel group. Another defendant claimed that they did come from the former hotel manager.

His notoriety in Hollywood aroused criticism. Some survivors of the Mille Collines Hotel reproach him in particular for taking advantage of their misfortune and even highlighting his role in the rescue of more than a thousand people.

He had also used his fame to give global resonance to his increasingly virulent positions against Kagame, sparking attacks by supporters of the regime.